Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word

by Hugh Rawson

JazzJazz is one of America’s most distinctive contributions to global culture. The origins of the music are fairly well understood. It arose from the songs and field hollers of plantation slaves and evolved over the years under the influence of church hymns, Creole music, the music of brass bands, and traditional Western harmony.  But what about the word jazz? The source of the term is something of a mystery – and it makes a good case study of the difficulties in tracking down word origins.

The first known example of jazz in print comes from 1912, and it involves baseball, not music.  Quoting Ben Henderson, a right-handed pitcher for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League, the Los Angeles Times of April 2 reported: “I got a new curve this year . . .  I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”

From Henderson’s description, his new pitch appears to be what is now known as a knuckle ball, which also wobbles on its way to the plate. But it could also have been a fast curve, which the Times referred to as a “jass” ball in its account of the game the next day. Whatever, the new pitch did not help Henderson a lot: he gave up nine hits, four walks, four runs, and lost the game, according to Gerald Cohen’s detailed account of the origins of jazz in his Comments on Etymology (October-November, 2005).

Jazz next popped up in print in March of 1913 in the sports pages of the San Francisco Bulletin.  In a March 6 column about the San Francisco Seals, who had just returned from training camp in Boyes Springs, E. T. “Scoop” Gleason, told readers: “Everybody has come back to town full of the old ‘jazz’ and they promise to knock the fans off their feet with their playing.” The word was new enough that Gleason felt he had to explain it: “What is the ‘jazz’?  Why it is a little of that ‘old life,’ the ‘gin-i-ker,’ the ‘pep,’ otherwise known as enthusiasm.”

Gleason recalled twenty-five years later that he had learned the word in a dinner-table conversation at Boyes Springs with William “Spike” Slattery, sports editor of another San Francisco paper, The Call. Slattery himself had picked up the word in a crap game. While rolling the dice, a player would shout “Come on, the old jazz.”

Jazz immediately caught on in the Bulletin office, inspiring a column the following month by Ernest J. Hopkins, entitled  “In Praise of  ‘Jazz,’ a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language.” Spelling the word variously with one Z or two, he continued: “You can go on flinging the new word all over the world, like a boy with a new jack-knife. It is ‘jazz’ when you run for your train . . . ‘jazz’ when you demand a raise,  ‘jaz’ when you hike thirty-five miles on Sunday … Anything that takes manliness or effort or energy or activity or strength of soul is ‘jaz.’”

The connection of the futurist word with music seems to have been made at Boyes Springs in 1913. Bands had been playing jazz for years, but it usually went by other names: ragtime, the blues, or Dixieland. At the spa in Boyes Springs, a band led by Art Hickman played “rag dances” in syncopated style. The ballplayers thought the group had a lively, peppy sound, perhaps associating it with the peppy, fizzy water of the springs, which they called “jazz water.”  Hickman later said that he didn’t much like having jazz applied to his music, but the name stuck.  His 1930 obituary called him the “Founder of Jazz.”

The musical sense of jazz traveled to Chicago within a year.  Bert Kelly, a ragtime banjo player with Hickman’s band at Boyes Springs, claimed in a 1957 letter to a trade paper, Variety, that he introduced the word to the musical scene in Chicago when he formed his own Jazz Band in 1914 at Chicago’s College Inn — and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt him.

Again the word quickly caught on. By 1915, the Chicago Sunday Tribune could report: “The ‘blues’ had done it. The ‘jazz’ had put pep into the legs that had scrambled too long for the 5:15 [commuter train].”  The next year the Chicago Herald noted “The shriek of women’s drunken laughter rivaled the scream of the imported New Orleans Jass Band, which never seemed to stop playing.” Those shrieking women soon were called jazz babies and they helped define the so-called jazz age in the 1920s. A versatile word, jazz was employed as a verb as well as a noun and adjective. Common phrases included jazz up, to enliven; jazz around, to fool around, and all that jazz, meaning all that stuff or sort of thing.

Which still leaves the origin of jazz up in the air. Professor Cohen limits his conclusions to examples of the word’s use in contemporary printed records, although many slang words,  especially those with sexually-charged or otherwise taboo meanings, often have long underground lives during which they rarely, if ever, appear in print. In the case of jazz, circumstantial evidence is strong that the word was used for a long time in the American South to refer to sexual intercourse, and that it may also have been associated with New Orleans music. These meanings may well not have been known to baseball players and newsmen on the Pacific Coast when they first heard the word.

Discussing the history of jazz, the one-volume abridgment of H. L. Mencken’s The American Language (1979) by Raven I. McDavid, Jr., includes the following footnote:

‘According to Raven I. McDavid, Sr., of Greenville, S.C., the announcement in 1919, of the first jazz band to play in Columbia [the state capital], where he was serving in the legislature, inspired feelings of terror among the local Baptists such as what might have been aroused by a personal appearance of Yahweh. Until that time jazz had never been heard in the Palmetto State except as a verb meaning to copulate.’

And Lafcadio Hearn, who spent the late 1870s and early ’80s as a journalist in New Orleans, recalled in the New York City Sun (August 5, 1917) that “the word ‘jaz,’ meaning to speed things up, to make excitement, was common among the blacks of the South and had been adopted by the creoles as a term to be applied to music of a rudimentary syncopated type.”

Many guesses have been made about the sexual origin of jazz: that it derives from jism or jasm, nineteenth-century terms that referred to spirit or vitality as well as to semen; from Jezebel, a nineteenth-century term for a prostitute, or from jasmine, a perfume supposedly favored by Jezebels.  More likely – though there is no real proof for any of these theories – it comes from the French jaser to chatter, to babble, but with a rather different slang meaning.  J. E. Lighter’s monumental Historical Dictionary of American Slang, whose completion is eagerly awaited by everyone in the word business, includes an entry from an 1896 French-English glossary: “Jaser (or Jazer). To copulate.”

The last word here goes to Clay Smith, a trombonist who played in western mining towns in the 1890s. Looking back on his touring days, he put it this way in Etude (September, 1924): “If the truth were known about the origin of the word ‘Jazz’ it would never be mentioned in polite society.”

8 thoughts on “Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word

  1. Harry

    In addition to the reasons you cite, I can mention another reason why it’s difficult to trace African-American idioms through the written record: racist policies kept many blacks illiterate. In much of the South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, and even after emancipation, African-Americans were segregated into inferior schools. So the written record is second- or third-hand. I have not researched this issue as thoroughly as you have, but every explanation I’ve read goes back to sex. It’s not hard to guess what “jazzin’ with my lady” might mean. I’ve read that “rock and roll” has similar roots. Have you found any evidence?

    Also, I should point out that while jazz, blues, ragtime, and Dixieland have sprung from similar roots, they are four distinctive and different forms of American music. Professional musicians would take exception to your implication that the terms are synonymous.

  2. New orleans is the place where Jazz was born. Hope I am right.:) Though its etymology is debatable but it is now known as a kind of music that many are interested to listen to. But to me, I am more familiar with pop, rock than jazz. I must improve my knowledge on this one.:)

  3. Mark F. Lawrence

    My own theory. The morphing, in this case shortening of the double pejorative “jiveass”. J’as, J’ass, Jazz.

    These words (jive, jiveass) have been around forever in the black parlance.

    Educated, European, classically trained musicians didn’t all take to
    this “jive”. It’s common sense: not everybody takes to everything.

    Jive can definitely, does even today mean bullshit.

    Jiveass was further repudiation of the music by some blacks themselves.

    M. New Orleans

  4. Eddy Monsoon

    We protect our preformed concepts by using derogatory terms against new concepts, oppressed embracers of now concepts frequently go on to wear such derogatory terms as a badge of honor. The etymology of “Jazz” could’ve been: Ya call that music? Sound’s like ya playin’ out J’ass. Dat’s right, dat’s right, I’m playing out my J’azz.

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